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The Critics Corner: Albums
15 Minutes
Barry Manilow | 15 Minutes
Pop icon takes musical risk in concept original album
Name: 15 Minutes
Label: Stiletto Entertainment
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review written by: Alan Ho
Pop legend Barry Manilow has certainly created a career for the ages in the music world, going from commercial jingle writer to commercially successful pop icon.  The man who sang the original “Mandy” (sorry Jonas Brothers), said “I Write the Songs”, had “A Weekend in New England” and spun the classic dance tale “Copacabana” is arguably one of the most timeless musicians in the modern pop music era.  For the past 10 years, the icon has been working the tour circuit, had a long stint in the glitz and grit of Las Vegas and had several PBS specials.  In addition, who can forget his reinterpreting the great American pop songbook of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s?

10 years in today’s music world would be considered for a lifetime, but for a legend like Barry Manilow, that’s how long it had to take to craft an album of original music.  The result is the well-conceived concept album “15 Minutes”, again his first original album since 2001’s “Here at the Mayflower” which ended up being the last original album Barry had with then Sony/BMG.  “15 Minutes” is a very relatable journey of a singer-songwriter plucked from obscurity into superstardom, then into the very abyss many music stars and Hollywood denizens have fallen into and then finally a rebirth, like some of have done in recent years.   Moreover, if you ask yourself if you have heard this story, it is because you have one of the more recent ascents, descents and ascending again is in the form of pop superstar Britney Spears, of whom was one of many inspirations for the album material for Manilow.

Consider how ironic the material is from someone who built his career on tunes that can get stuck in anyone’s head after 40 years.   Nevertheless, irony aside, Manilow shows off sides of his musical persona never seen in the 40 plus year career such as the well-placed bravado from the opening track “15 Minutes”, which begins the individual’s journey towards superstardom.  The track might as well be the opening theme to just about every reality show on television, especially “American Idol”, something Barry participated in three times as a mentor.  Manilow updates his disco-influenced “Copacabana” sound on the audition tuned “Work the Room” and goes much more modern with the dance beat.

Manilow fans worried about his sudden sound change should be abated by the piano-driven “Bring on Tomorrow” with the soaring musical arrangement, which may remind his long-time fans of songs like “I Write the Songs”.  In addition, “Bring on Tomorrow” in comparison to the rest of the album is almost like hearing and feeling the individual’s last shred of their former self and life, there is still a sense of hope in this song.   

The style radically changes into a more assertive, even somewhat arrogant, guitar-driven pop/rock as the album segues its way into tracks like “Now It’s For Real”.  You can almost feel the growing cockiness in lyrics like “And one door opens/Why should it amaze me? /I always knew!” and “I’m gonna own this body and soul”.  One of the more well-crafted tracks is the rock guitar-driven “He’s a Star”, which appears to be told from the perspective of the handlers about his groundbreaking show.  The electric guitar alongside Barry’s unchanged vocal style brings about another side and color never before heard.  The introspective and touching “Written in Stone” is another track that showcases whatever shred of the individual’s former life and personality is left as he ascends into superstardom.  The track like “Bring on Tomorrow” is anchored by the soaring string arrangement and Manilow’s familiar piano playing and almost serves as how the individual is unable to deal with all the trappings of stardom and is making his case for a girl he left behind to come back into his life. 

Many of today’s pop stars and bands might want to take a listen to the next track “Letter from a Fan/So Heavy, So High”.  Young frontwoman Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose begins the track from the perspective of an obsessive fan, an ongoing phenomenon that has amplified in recent years (e.g. Justin Bieber).  Nataly’s haunting and even creepy vocals segue into yet another side of Barry not seen before, as his answer to the obsessive fan(s) is delivered in an almost cynical anger, tired of having to deal with these kind of fans 24/7.  It is a wonderfully crafted song shown from the point of view of obsessive fans and the star itself.

The bridge “Everybody’s Leavin’” begins the inevitable descent from stardom for the superstar and segues into the angry “Who Needs You”, showing another new wrinkle in Manilow as the character in this concept journey starts to become disillusioned and now very angry as he becomes aware everyone who built him up is beginning to jump ship.  He also begins to show signs of denial of his growing substance abuse problems at the 2:03 mark when he sings “I can stop when I want to, I can stop when I want to, don’t wanna hear it, I’m in control!”  The descent continues with the fitting “Winner Goes Down” as cynicism sets in for the fallen star as he questions the price of fame and wonders if it is worth it.  The sheer sarcastic cynicism in “Winner Goes Down” is yet another new wrinkle in Barry Manilow’s musical personality.

While Manilow has tackled acoustic material before in remaking some of his classic hits, he showcases that an old dog can learn new tricks in the contemplatively powerful “Slept Through the End of the World”.  The acoustic guitar-driven tune reminds of the current acoustic style and fare heard across mainstream radio and almost has a country-pop feel to it.  In the song, the fallen star starts to realize what went wrong, a level of remorse is heard in the soft but powerful vocal delivery of Manilow as the character begins to also realize that he has fallen and did not handle the trappings of fame like he should have.

The piano bridge “Reflection” is a great way into the reflective piece “Trainwreck” as Barry’s character finally figures out what went wrong and wants to start over (“Maybe I played too hard/Maybe I ran too fast/Maybe I was their hero/That don’t last”), leaving that past chapter behind him.   The dawn of recognition of their past problems in “Trainwreck” transitions into a comeback version of the title track from the beginning as Manilow’s character is determined to do it again, this time the right way. 

The album then closes with a very familiar disco-infused theme in “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”; his longtime fans should most certainly be pleased with this catchy ending track, where his character is on the cusp of his comeback and comes in with the very same optimism and hope from the first three tracks.  The ending is a very fun way to end this well-crafted concept album and journey.

Nearly 40 years after he came to stardom’s doorstep with “Mandy” (again, apologies to Jonas Brothers fans), Barry Manilow’s vocal approach and chops have not changed but what has changed, at least in “15 Minutes” is the lyrical and musical approach.  He proves that after decades of piano-driven material, he is capable of singing behind an electric guitar and pure rock beats and conveys much darker emotions than ever before.  At this point in his career, many in his position would not have undertaken such a musical risk like the material in “15 Minutes”.  The album material, regardless of character serves as a cautionary and even somewhat cynical tale spun with a little sarcasm on the trappings of fame and it’s endless up and down journey on it.  However, this well-calculated musical risk also showcases that at nearly 70 years old, Barry Manilow may just not be done with HIS own fifteen minutes of fame, which began so sweet and innocent in 1974.  With that being said, if you are a fan, even casual, “15 Minutes” will present itself as a wonderfully crafted journey that you will enjoy.  However, if you are not a fan and consider him “wonderfully bad” or whatever, then “15 Minutes” might just not be enough to sway your opinion of him.
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